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What Does an Inverter Do in an RV?

What Does an Inverter Do in an RV?

It may not be the most talked-about component, but an RV inverter is a critical piece of equipment for those who camp off-grid. Those who aren’t very familiar with RV electrical system may not even know what it does. Read on as we take a look at this valuable, convenient piece of technology.

Inverter

What Does an RV Inverter Do?

To understand an RV inverter, you need to know a bit about your RV’s electrical system. Your rig essentially has two systems. The DC system runs off energy stored in your RV’s batteries and powers things like your lights and other smaller items. In contrast, your rig needs AC power to run systems like your air conditioner microwave, and traditional wall outlets. However, using AC power will require you to be plugged into shore power — unless you have an inverter.

what does an rv inverter to diagram

Inverters will take the DC electricity stored in your rig’s batteries and convert it to AC, allowing you to run AC devices without shore power.

Dont confuse the RVs inverter with inverter generators that use similar technology for part of the system. These use gasoline (or sometimes propane) to produce AC power for your rig’s larger electronics. 

What’s the Difference Between an Inverter and a Converter?

Inverters and converters may sound similar — and they are. Inverters will take a DC power (battery) and create AC. On the other hand, converters take AC electricity (usually from shore power) and convert it to DC. Your rig’s house batteries then store this DC power for later use when you’re unplugged. 

A RV converter could also be called a battery charger as that is its main function. In addition to charging the batteries it provides necessary power to run the DC lights and appliances in the RV so the batteries don’t drain.

RV inverter vs Converter diagram

Inverters may not be necessary for RVers who don’t need to run large systems while boondocking. On the flip side, converters are a critical piece of equipment for all RVs as they need to charge their batteries. RVers often have both for maximum flexibility. 

The Benefits of RV Inverters

While it may not be flashy, an RV inverter offers some significant benefits, especially for certain camping styles. 

Run AC Appliances when Unplugged

With an inverter, you can run your microwave, computer, and watch TV, all without shore power. With a large enough inverter even an air conditioner may run. Without an inverter, you could only use DC-powered electronics like your lights, fans, and water pump. This can make a huge difference in enjoying the comforts of your RV while on the road.

Make the Most of a Solar Power System 

Frequent off-grid campers may be interested in equipping their rig with solar panels to help provide power while boondocking. Unlike shore power, solar systems generate DC power that can be sent directly to your batteries without a converter. However, you’ll need an inverter if you want to use that power for your AC appliances. 

What Are the Types of RV Inverters?

While all inverters generally do the same thing, there are some key technical differences that you should be aware of before purchasing an RV inverter. 

Modified Sine Wave

A modified sine wave inverter creates an ac waveform but it does not look like what you get from the power grid. It usually is a square or stepped wave that is called “modified”

Modified Sine Wave
This is what a modified sine wave might look like from a modified sine inverter. It is technically a sine wave but has sharp edges that can cause harmonics buzz in electronics.

Modified sine wave inverters are the most common, thanks to their lower price. They’ll still allow you to power all of your AC devices, but you’ll get lower efficiency and need more energy than a traditional pure sine wave inverter. Additionally, certain high-end appliances like computers, tablets, camera batteries, and more can suffer damage over the long run.

Modified sine wave inverters are also known for introducing a buzz or hum into speaker systems and electronics.

Pure Sine Wave

Pure sine wave inverters mimic a traditional house’s AC electrical system. That means anything you’d be able to run safely at home, you can run in your RV.

These inverters are more costly and usually larger because they have many more electronics in them that smooth out the waveform so that it functions the same as your home. While the inverters themselves may use a bit more power to create the pure sine, the electronics will be happier and more efficient running on it.

pure sine wave

Inverter Charger Combination 

You can also equip your RV with an inverter charger combination for simplicity. Inverter chargers combine the features of converters with the benefits of inverters. This allows you to have one device that processes your electricity in both directions.

Programmable versions are compatible with all battery types and often come with extra features like an automatic transfer switch or automatic generator starter. However, these are the most expensive option when it comes to inverters.

victron multiplus RV inverter charger

The above image is our inverter charger installed in our fifth wheel. It’s one special box that does many tasks. Read more about it in our ultimate solar build article.

What Features Should You Look for in an Inverter?

When shopping for an RV inverter, keep these features in mind as you consider your needs and budget.

Power Output

Each inverter can only supply so much power, so it’s vital to know your energy needs when shopping. Most inverters range from a few hundred watts up to 8,000 or more. Remember to keep in mind any surge capacity needed for appliances like air conditioners, and leave some breathing room to be safe. Higher-capacity models will be more expensive and, in some cases, physically larger as well.

While larger may seem better larger also means you will need more batteries and it will have a larger power consumption when at idle.

xantrex inverter charger
This a Xantrax freedom Inverter Charger

Built-In Protection

You’re dealing with sensitive technology throughout your RV electrical system, from your batteries to your inverter to your electronics. Having some protection built right into your inverter can be crucial. Many models have features to prevent common problems like overheating. They also have overload protection, over-and under-voltage alarms, short circuit prevention, and surge protection.

Ease of Installation

Depending on their design and the layout of your rig’s electrical system, installation may also be a factor in your purchase. Checking online reviews and videos is a crucial step if you’re planning to install your inverter yourself. You may find it’s above your skill level, forcing you to either pay a professional or pick a new inverter altogether. 

rv installed inverter
Where and how an inverter gets installed is important to know

Price

Those looking to save money on their inverters should opt for modified sine wave models. As the price increases, so does the number of features. Pure sine wave inverters will be more costly, and inverter charger combinations more expensive still. From a financial perspective, it’s also essential to consider the long run. If you skimp on an inverter, you may find yourself spending more on replacing batteries or electronics.

Get Inverted!

The next time you charge your computer at a campsite without power, or you’re able to microwave a meal while boondocking, thank your hardworking RV inverter. Remember these principles, and you’re one step closer to mastering your RV’s electrical system. Do you have an RV inverter?  


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